• My first fantasy basketball season was deceptively easy. It was the fall of the year 2000 and I was so excited to play this game based on my favorite sport. I also loved statistics and felt like I could figure out positional and statistical scarcity well enough to compete with my friends that had one year of experience. I ended up winning the league, and those aspects definitely played a part. My immediate addiction to waiver wire stats for the preceding week and month didn’t hurt either. However, the main reason for my success was a pickup I made after a just a handful of games.

    Shawn Marion was coming off of a rookie season in which he finished 174th/149th (8-cat/9-cat) in total stats per Basketball Monster’s Historical Rankings. He played in just 51 games though, making his per-game ranks quite a bit better: 104th/76th. His stats apparently didn’t wow us enough (or more likely, get him ranked highly enough) for us to pay attention on draft day. At any rate, he started off the season with some big numbers and I scooped him up right away. He would go on to finish the season 11th/5th in totals and 14th/6th in per-game rankings. This was followed by seven years of value as a top-6 player, including three straight years as the top 9-cat player in which he missed just a total of four games.

    Pretty simple strategy for winning this fantasy basketball thing, right? I just needed to obtain first-round-caliber players on the waiver wire every season! The only issue with that would be that Hassan Whiteside’s breakout in January of 2015 might have been the next and only time that this has happened since. But while we can’t count on adding our best player for free each season, we can make smart moves on players that look like they’re making early breakouts.

    The first players I’d like to look at today are some of the hottest names of the young season. Let’s think about how to identify legitimate breakout players, compare some stats and see if we should take advantage of the hype by trading these guys for some cold-starting or just boringly reliable veterans.

    I give you four sets of guard stats:

    A looks really awesome. Is that a stretch of games from Klay Thompson when he had a spike in steals? Nope. It’s the first five games of Kendrick Nunn‘s NBA career. Similarly, C is the first five games of another popular pickup’s season. That’s Devonte’ Graham. Two excellent stretches to start the season by largely undrafted players. So, what are B and D? Well, B is the following four Nunn games and D is the following four Graham games.

    As much as I wanted to see my fellow Fighting Illini be the story of the season, I just couldn’t get on board with Nunn as a fantasy star even with those five games. Why? Let’s give it some context.

    Reasons why Nunn’s early stats could be sustainable:

    *Nunn was highly recruited out of high school where he won four straight Illinois state basketball championships with teammate Jabari Parker.

    *He was the second highest scorer in the nation in his final college season at Oakland with similar stats to those five games.

    *In 49 games off the bench in the G League last season, Nunn did almost as well as that once again.

    *He kept up the production in 2019 NBA Summer League.

    *The Heat do a great job of finding and developing G League talent.

    *Nunn remained in the starting lineup after Jimmy Butler returned from injury.

    Reasons why Nunn is unlikely to be a great fantasy player:

    *He went undrafted in the 2018 NBA Draft and did not make an NBA team (which could have been due to issues off the court).

    *When Nunn finally played with more NBA talent in the preseason, he did have a 40-point game, but he played a much smaller role in each of the other four games.

    *The amazing five-game stretch included three games sans Jimmy Butler and two in which Butler took 11 shots or fewer.

    *The Heat are a playoff team, and playoff teams don’t often give rookies large roles.

    *Shooting guards are not typically valuable in fantasy unless they’re amazing in some categories.

    I just felt like there was no way a relatively unknown shooting guard could come out of nowhere and be more than a late-round/streamer kind of player. But did I regret not being the one to add him where I could have? For sure! There’s always a chance that a player like this is something special, and this was a great hot streak to ride since it came at the beginning of the season for a new player with a starting role. But the sample of games six through nine, while it did include some blowout games, ended up much closer to what I expect Nunn to do for the rest of the season.

    Those numbers had him ranked in the 250 range for that four-game stretch. Not quite the next Klay Thompson or CJ McCollum. In fact, let’s take a look at Nunn’s nine-game start compared to a boring, late-round shooting guard that I think I’d still prefer.

    These are the season stats (through 11/11) for Kendrick Nunn (A) and Evan Fournier (B). If the trend continues, Nunn will drop from his current 9-cat rank of 77. And trusty old Fournier is sitting right in his normal neighborhood at 99, so Evan Fournier is our off-brand version of the current Kendrick Nunn. That makes the actionable thing here an attempt to trade Nunn for Fournier and a little something extra. This one’s a classic sell-high, buy-low deal. But not all hot-starters should be sold, because they may not actually be at their peak.

    That brings us back to Devonte’ Graham. I’ll keep this one a bit shorter, but here’s my pro and con thought process regarding Graham’s legitimacy:

    Pro:

    *His stats are consistent with what he did as a college senior at Kansas.

    *He has one year in the league under his belt.

    *Graham plays on a bad team that wants to give him big minutes.

    *His numbers have been consistent through ten games.

    Con:

    *Graham hasn’t done it before.

    *He shot 34.3% in his rookie season.

    Graham could arguably be the Hornets’ best player right now. And with those assists, he’s generally running the team, too. Barring some shocking renaissance from Dwyane Bacon or Malik Monk, Graham should keep getting 30 minutes and doing what he’s doing. I would prefer him to Kendrick Nunn right now. And instead of selling, the move here could be to buy Graham (or to pick him up if you’re in a casual/shallow league as he’s only 76% owned!).

    Is there a bigger name brand player right now that we could ditch for him while adding another player or upgrading at another position? I think so. Take a look at this:

    A is Graham this season. B looks much better and more efficient. And C is also efficient, but at the expense of threes and assists when contrasted with Graham. It probably won’t surprise you to hear that B is Malcolm Brogdon this season and C is Malcolm Brogdon from last season.

    While I expect Graham to keep up his production, Brogdon’s 10-game start to the season has included two missed games from Domantas Sabonis, five from Jeremy Lamb, six from Myles Turner and of course, 10 from Victor Oladipo. And yes, Brogdon should have a larger role in Indiana than he did in Milwaukee once everything gets settled. But he’s probably not keeping up his rank of 15 in 9-cat for much longer, and he’s definitely not keeping it up once Oladipo and company return.

    Last season, Brogdon finished 64th and Graham is 58th right now. I expect Graham to be an off-brand Brogdon for most of the season, with the main difference between them being shooting percentages (though it appears that Graham will have a nice edge in threes). So it becomes a question of whether you’d rather have Brogdon or an inefficient Brogdon (Graham) and another mid-round player that you’d surely be able to get in a deal. That probably depends on your team, but I think you get my point.

    Again, these aren’t the only players that can fit into trades of this style right now. These are just examples to get you thinking about how to evaluate some of your own players that might be overachieving and ideas about how to use it to your advantage. This is really the time to try to get an edge while players’ perceived values have the best chance to be significantly different than their expected values. As the season goes on, those will get closer as everyone gets to see a bigger sample, but I’ll still have plenty of underrated targets and number-related fun for you regardless.

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